November 7, 2003: Almonds, arugula, beans,
basil and beets. Head lettuce, jalapeños, corn dried
or sweet. The list spills off the table, and with it go the
names of five cherry tomato varieties, 11 winter squashes, and
two pumpkins penciled in on the bottom of the dangling page.
This is the early October pick sheet for Full Belly Farm.
It’s long and wide, with eight customers listed across
the top to make a block graph of who gets what. The buyers
are listed as casual acronyms: ADS, a four-star restaurant
in Napa; BOL, an old-school natural foods store; WFSR, a massive
grocery, and its neighbor MKT, a farmers market that Full
Belly attends 49 weeks a year.
Yes, the farm is in one of the country’s best, all-purpose
growing regions: the Capay Valley, west of Sacramento. And
yes, that region is privy to some of the most enthusiastic,
wealthy organic food customers in the country. But there are
plenty of organic vegetable farms struggling in Northern California;
moreover, perhaps none has it together like Full Belly. They
have 15 wholesale accounts, 15 retail, and a CSA with 650
members. They occupy double-sized stands at two farmers markets
and employ 35 full-time workers year-round; in summer that
rises to three markets and 50 employees. And the most telling
statistic: the owners’ entire income comes from the
Expanding the definition
of family farm to families farm
Sounds like Full Belly Inc., but actually it’s still
a family farm—just a new version. The owners decided
early on that the lone-man-on-a-tractor stereotype wasn’t
for them, and that has become their strength. The formula
has been one of expanding conventional definitions of what’s
important, valuable, and effective. The result is that now,
rather than support themselves by a single, strong pillar—one
leader, one crop, one market—they have formed a series
The first step was expanding the most basic definition, to
go from a family farm to a families farm. In 1989, when Dru
Rivers and Paul Muller had a chance to buy the land they were
renting, they brought in Judith Redmond and her husband as
partners. “Part of it was financial,” Dru recalls.
“But also, we had two young kids and a complex business.
We realized we might not make it with just the two of us doing
Next, the four adopted a strategy of group-decision making.
Each has individual priorities—Dru manages the animals,
for instance, and Judith is the accountant and computer whiz—but
nothing big happens on the farm without a decision made by
all four partners. (The fourth is now Andrew Brait, Judith’s
“Partnerships are not appealing to most farmers,”
Judith says. “They think it’s oppressive to have
to make decisions with other people. But I’ve seen over
and over that we make better decisions this way. Rather than
bearing the stamp of one strong individual person, our choices
are guided by a range of considerations and perspectives.”
On a practical level, the partnership divides the weight
of running a full-time farm four ways. They split the days
when they must rise at 3 am; they get vacations. Plus, they
are able to pursue individual interests that would be impossible
for a lone proprietor. When last year Paul wanted to grow
wheat, he planted four acres just to see if it would work.
An overlapping web
of markets, from wholesale and retail to farmers markets and
Today, Full Belly sells both wheat berries and flour through
the farmers markets, the CSA, and the wholesale list. Where
the core partnership works because it’s solid and unchanging,
this web of different markets draws strength from being dynamic.
The farm originally made the bulk of its money through wholesale,
but some years ago, the partners realized that selling to
distributors was leaving them unfulfilled. “We were
sending things off and the only time we heard back it was
negative,” Dru recalled. “We never heard, ‘Oh,
this is beautiful.’ It was more, ‘We weren’t
happy with this’ or ‘We’re sending it back.’
That got discouraging.”
In 1992 they started a CSA program as a conscious move toward
more personal markets. And yet they never gave up wholesale.
Partially it was due to the unpredictable nature of farming:
some years favor crops targeted at direct markets, other years
favor crops that can sell in mass quantities (and with less
effort) to distributors. This mix of markets acts as a shifting
net that catches Full Belly wherever the season lets them
But the farmers have also chosen to keep their wholesale
accounts because they’ve managed to make them personal.
They have grown to know the buyers over the years, and now
talk with them as much about orders as about their kids and
vacations. “That makes [them] really feel connected
to us and, ultimately, want to buy stuff from us,” Dru
says. “Maintaining and nurturing those relationships
The four partners are not plotting in their affections—these
are among the most sincere people you’ll meet. But they
have put quantifiable value on knowing customers. The traditional
model of anonymous food production sees time spent gabbing
as a loss, but at Full Belly, personal contact is considered
as essential as planting or picking.
In addition to the thousands of casual conversations the
four have each week on the phone and at the farmers market,
they organize very intentional points of contact: They host
kids’ camps and potlucks and farm tours and cooking
classes. They write a CSA newsletter and supply feedback letters
at drop-off sites so members can respond. Every October they
hold a two-day festival of hay rides and camping in the almond
orchard. This fall, 4,000 people attended.
These interactions create a public identity for the farmers,
to which customers bond. They also allow the farmers to tune
into what else customers want. Evidence of their listening
is everywhere: At the farmers market, their offerings are
not stacked on a low, folding table, but instead closer to
eye level in three orderly tiers; the goods are constantly
restocked to create a sense of abundance. The farmers will
describe for you the difference between all 13 varieties of
winter squash, or cut open a melon just to give you a taste.
When they first sold full, butchered lambs to their CSA members,
many didn’t know how to cook the neck and other less-used
parts; Full Belly found a chef to teach them.
Working to blur the
line between farm and wild, farm and community
Because customers treasure variety, the farm now produces
120 crops on its 200 acres. Understandably, a master plan
for crop rotation would be prohibitively complicated. They
don’t follow tomatoes with tomatoes or corn with corn,
but otherwise Full Belly relies mostly on inherent diversity
to counter pests.
This has meant expanding the definition of valuable land
use to include that which doesn’t yield a crop. They
cover crop adamantly and plant gardens that are pure decoration.
There’s wild land, too, including 20-odd acres of riparian
habitat and four wide hedgerows they’ve planted with
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Judith told
me. “We all live here on the farm, so we feel it’s
worth it to make the place beautiful and create habitat. Everyone
recognizes the need for it.”
As the land becomes more than just endless rows of vegetables,
the lines separating Farm from The Rest of the World break
down and ecosystems on each side reach across. Likewise, the
people on the farm make a point of interacting with the rest
of the human world. All four partners do advocacy work aimed
at creating opportunities for farmers; with Paul’s help,
some local ranchers have transitioned to the more lucrative
grass-fed beef market. Dru and Paul make a point of knowing
everyone in town, and their daughter is the chapter FFA president.
And of course the food itself is the biggest opening: since
the farm isn’t in a drop-by location, their Friday farm
stand is pointedly geared toward the neighbors.
A stable, dedicated
workforce makes it all possible
Altogether it is an impossibly big job for even four dedicated
partners. They have 50 full-time employees, of course, but
sheer manpower isn’t a guarantee in itself. So Full
Belly has created year-round jobs to keep their workers rooted.
A core crew of ten has been at the farm since 1989, and another
10 have been there for a decade. Judith put the value plainly:
“They know this place really well.”
In addition to the hourly workforce, Full Belly has an internship
program that draws applications from as far away as Chile.
I asked Judith if they end up being a net benefit to the farm.
“We look at everything from an economic and social
viability point of view,” she replied. “Ask that
question and a lot of farmers would be wondering what do we
pay these guys and how much work do they really do—trying
to boil it down in terms of the economics. I think on all
levels it’s positive.”
The practical level is that these live-in workers can load
trucks late at night and rise before dawn if necessary. Plus,
their 150-mile drive to the farmers market isn’t paid
by the hour. Of course, there’s more to it than that.
The people in Full Belly’s program are there because
they are excited about farming. Their enthusiasm is a great
sales tool at the market, and it’s even better on the
farm as a sort of life force.
“It adds a lot to our lives to see them evolve year
after year,” Judith said. “Some interns just don’t
get it in the beginning. They don’t understand why we’re
working so hard, they don’t want to work late and get
up early. But eventually it dawns on them that Wow, this is
amazing, and they want to jump on every tractor and turn every
compost pile and go to every market.”
Many former interns now own farms themselves: Jack and Jenny
run a similar operation in Minnesota. Tom and Suzy grow vegetables
in Alaska. Mike and Emily have returned to her hometown in
Oklahoma to look for acreage. And with her husband, Nigel,
Francis co-founded Eatwell Farm, less than an hour away.
The strings of this web stretch so far you can hardly see
them from the farm, but in some ways it is the most valuable
support—especially for the future. The more our population
grows, the more farms and cities will compete for land and
water. There are plenty of people who think using those resources
for agriculture is a waste.
“That’s why we need to develop constituencies
in urban areas,” Judith says. “And that’s
why we grow farms and farmers as well as food. We’re
creating a community of farms, and they will grow more farms,
which then build the market, and do even more to educate the
cities. It just doesn’t work if there are only one or